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Bristol’s ketamine dealers: trapped in luxury

Falling into it, dealing with your own habit- quitting dealing can be just as hard as giving up a drug addiction.

Addicted Bristol: Life and Death

Falling into it and dealing with your own habit – quitting dealing can be just as hard as giving up a drug addiction.

Illustrations: Will Brown

Chapter 1: Falling into a trap
Chapter 2: Fuelling a habit, unable to quit
Chapter 3: Fighting the law

Tom* has a crack in his skull, glued together. Someone hit him with the wrong side of a hammer last week. He looks at me glumly, as he tells me about a time years ago he was tortured for three days in a block of flats. They broke his wrists and knocked his teeth out one by one. He didn’t know where their cannabis was. When it was recovered, they apologised by paying him in cash. Despite experiences like this, Tom says he enjoys dealing: “I get a kick out of it. I feel in control, I feel free.”

If you are here for more gratuitous crime-porn that uses the misery of others for your entertainment, look elsewhere. There is certainly no shortage of it in the media. Most people seem happy to believe that all dealers are inherently evil, and that they have made an active choice to profit from poisoning young people. While there are clearly lots of incredibly ruthless dealers out there, the five people I spoke to had been led to the lifestyle by circumstance or by rational reasons at first, but slowly became entangled in its web.

Part of our series
Addicted Bristol: Life and Death

Drug addiction: life and deathRead more

In his study of human history, Yuval Harari establishes the concept of a ‘luxury trap’. To hunter-gatherer nomads, staying in one place and growing wheat instead must have seemed like a far easier option. In fact, their lives became much harder within a few generations of farming, and humans had lost the skills necessary to be nomadic – so were trapped.

Luxury traps can be found all throughout history and in modern life. To a teenager, making hundreds of pounds in an evening while getting high with their friends is very appealing. It certainly beats working in W.H. Smiths and earning £4.20 an hour – the minimum wage for 16- and 17-year-olds.

Before they know it they are 24, have two GCSEs, a criminal record and a raging drug habit. Within a few years, the qualifications, experience and skills needed to enter the workforce are a distant memory. Just like the farmers, it becomes all they have ever known.

Ketamine is a tranquilliser used as an alternative to morphine, but the Class B drug is taken recreationally and can be incredibly psychologically addictive. Recreational use of ketamine in rave culture has exploded since the 1990s, with estimates of around 120,000 regular users in the UK.

Bristol is notorious for being the epicentre of ketamine use in the UK – to the extent that the drug is sometimes nicknamed ‘Bristol Crystal’. It is well known for causing significant damage to kidneys, bladders and urinary tracts. As a result, Southmead hospital now has one of the best urology units in the world. This article is an insight into ketamine dealers in Bristol.

Chapter 1: Falling into a trap

Of the five dealers I spoke to, most of them deal other drugs, but make most of their money on ketamine – and have done for years. Some sell perhaps £100 worth per day, others thousands. Even Greg, who is the lowest-level dealer I spoke to, bought a van with the earnings from a single festival.

Tom remembers: “When I moved to Bristol, I saw the K market here and thought, wow. Everyone wants it. This is fucking money.” He points out how much hard work and stress he puts in. “People think it’s easy money, it’s not. To do it properly, it takes skill and talent.”

“You fall into it. Completely. Not by your own design… it happened by accident”

I found two things shared by all the people I spoke to – who are now in their late 20s to mid 30s. They were all intelligent and started dealing cannabis at a young age. Greg and Liz were 16, Ed, Sam and Tom 14. Greg remembers that “as a teenager, drug dealers were seen as cool, someone who runs by their own rules and is respected by their peers. I guess a lot of it comes from popular culture.”

Ed is representative of the others when he says, “You fall into it. Completely. Not by your own design… it happened by accident.”

When Tom was left alone by his parents at the age of 16, older dealers realised that, as a college kid with no parental oversight, he was a potential goldmine. They started loaning him increasingly large quantities of cannabis and MDMA, checking up on him weekly to make sure he was making good on their investment. Although these relationships between older people and young children are highly questionable, they all strongly deny any suggestion of having been exploited.

Liz has a caring but righteous air about her, and insists she started selling harder drugs to reduce harms. She says she saw other dealers selling her friends fake drugs, or dangerously high doses.

“I thought, I’m going to get real drugs, and before I sell them anything, they have to talk with me, and I’m going to tell them exactly what it is, what the warning signs are, let them know how much to take. The people they were getting it from before were telling them none of this… I’d rather they get it off me safely.”

She also didn’t tell her friends to make sure there was a “very strict line between friends and drugs”, and instead sold weed to older people – “nice pub guys in their fifties”.

I point out to Liz that she was bearing a lot of responsibility by trying to look after the health of others while distributing black market products. She admits that as it progressed, it became more about the profit margins and feeding her own habit.

She claims to have helped her customers with their addictions to the drugs she sells them. It crosses my mind that almost none of her customers will be in contact with treatment services. It’s possible that the most help they’ve ever received for their drug use was from their dealer.

Chapter 2: Fuelling a habit, unable to quit

Liz, Sam and Ed openly admit dealing ketamine goes hand-in-hand with their problematic use. Sam does lines throughout the interview and goes to the toilet twice, walking hunched over as if in discomfort. “I sniff about two grams a day”, he tells me. “It’s tearing my insides to pieces. It’s hard, you know… I really want to give it up, but if I stop having it around I can’t pay my rent.”

Tom is different in that he does not use ketamine at all. He says he chose to sell it because he hates the effects, and so knows he won’t sniff his profits away. After our interview, I watch him sit, sober and alert, amongst a group of highly tranquillised individuals. This is clearly a regular occurrence for him.

Softly-spoken Greg says he has a problem with cannabis, not ketamine, but is put in a constant moral dilemma: “It’s created issues with my girlfriend”, he says. “She has a ketamine problem… basically I don’t give it to her very often, and that sometimes creates arguments.” When I ask if he worries about damaging her he responds, “yeah of course.”

He insists that his selling has not made her addiction worse: “I’ve stopped selling lots of times, and then she’s just got even more off someone else or started selling it herself.” I wonder if she had done so to fill the economic gap left by him, and how much his decision to start dealing again was in order to try and limit her use. As Greg knots his brow, looks at the floor and struggles to get his words out, I can tell this is something that hugely bothers him.

He isn’t sure if it’s better if customers come to him or not. “I do feel responsible but it is true that if I didn’t [sell] they would get it somewhere else, and the people I know would get less quality… that still doesn’t clear my conscience, because yeah I do care a lot about my place in the world… and it doesn’t feel like I’m really benefiting anyone.”

Out of all of the dealers I spoke to, Tom expressed the least remorse or guilt about distributing harmful products to others. Still, he describes his ethical code: “I don’t push it on people, yeah. I don’t consciously go find people to distribute to. People come to me.

“I did have a customer that we deemed was at risk [of addiction], and we cut her off. She was just sniffing it [rather than selling it], and she had a daughter. I try to be ethical about it. I do try and vet my customers a little bit, to make sure they’re not fucking themselves up.”

“I had a psychotic episode from getting high off my own supply. It resulted in near enough £1m worth of medical procedures, and the energy and expertise of over 100 people to get me back to health.”

Liz says she was once robbed by her own housemate, who was addicted. But instead of responding with anger or violence – as one might expect given stereotypes about dealers – she says she stopped dealing, albeit temporarily, out of concern for her friend.

All the dealers I spoke to have tried multiple times to stop selling, but all fell back into it because of financial reasons. Ed is the only one to have given up permanently, and the others who continue all have plans to stop in the future – some more concrete than others. Sam half-heartedly runs me through some job applications he is considering, but admits that he has not had a job in two years.

Greg tells me about various projects he’s involved in, and that he volunteers once a week with animals. Working full-time would stop him doing these activities, which are crucial to him eventually getting the job he wants. He says dealing has given him enough time to engage with the things he’s really passionate about.

I ask Ed how he managed get out of dealing. He says it was after almost killing himself. “That was never my intention though, I had a psychotic episode from getting high off my own supply.” He fell from a two-storey window, and doctors told his mother he was going to die.

“It resulted in near enough £1m worth of medical procedures, and the energy and expertise of over 100 people to get me back to health.”

He tells me this with a calm voice and a straight face, apparently making no attempt to impress me.

Chapter 3: Fighting the law

All of those I interviewed have been in trouble with the law at some point. Ed and Tom have done time in prison – and both continued dealing after being released. Ed told me prison simply gave him better networks from which to make more money.

Unlike Tom, Ed says prison helped him. He found his time there infinitely less stressful than life on the outside, but thinks the system makes things worse.

“The whole thing is fucking stupid”, he says. “If you put a bunch of people guilty of dealing drugs in the same fucking place, they’re only going to talk and learn from each other… It’s a terrible idea to try and prevent crime to put all the criminals into one place and force them to socialise with each other.”

Meanwhile, Greg expresses concern about a close friend of his who has started smoking synthetic cannabis, Spice, since going to prison, where the drug is hard to escape from. Liz agrees that locking people up doesn’t work, because “once you’re labelled [a criminal], you go with that label.” Tom, who appears to have very much assumed the label, tells me he was imprisoned on an import charge. “Is it worth the risk? Yeah. Not for my family. My missus hates it. But I provide for them.”

“I am an inevitable by-product of the legislation. All drugs should be regulated. Even my dad thinks that. My mum thinks that. Even my law-abiding Tory sister fucking thinks that.”

Everyone except Tom are strongly in favour of the regulation of all drugs, even if it meant losing their business. Tom says: “I like the law because it gives me a profit margin… if I get busted I deserve it, don’t I?” He did however support the idea of decriminalising drug users.

Sam had clearly thought about it, and was surprisingly eloquent: “There should be purchase limits. I reckon most of my regulars just want a line or two; they can’t really afford a full gram every day… Pharmacists look after your health, drug dealers look after their profits.”

Ed says: “I am an inevitable by-product of the legislation. All drugs should be regulated. Even my dad thinks that. My mum thinks that. Even my law-abiding Tory sister fucking thinks that, and she hates drugs more than anything. Surely everyone thinks that now… but no they don’t, do they?”

When researching this article, I saw bags of drugs bigger than your head change hands. I spoke to dealers at a wide variety of levels: from retail right up to major distributors. One does business with international crime syndicates importing vast quantities of drugs into the UK. Another turned over £250,000 in six months. While waiting for one of them to get ready to be interviewed, I watched them make around £250 profit in 45 minutes.

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They came across as people who had resorted to criminality, and guilt-ridden ethical dilemmas, in order to sustain their families, livelihoods and drug habits. They are all united by their struggle to reintegrate into society, after stepping into the world of criminality and finding it difficult to turn back.

Tom seems content where he is, amid violence and chaos. I was left unconvinced by Sam’s plans to change his life. Liz has more concrete prospects, but is still waiting for a magical career to land on her doorstep. Greg is keen to stop dealing as soon as his projects and volunteering transform into a real job. Ed only managed to leave the lifestyle behind after he fell from a two-storey window, and doctors told his mother he was going to die.

The people I interviewed were a product of their environment. Exposed to psychoactive substances when they were still developing, using drugs became integral to the reward pathways in their brain. They were placed in circumstances where selling illegal products to their friends was the most economically rational option, and it appears dealing drugs has become just as rewarding as taking them.

It struck me that quitting dealing is often just as hard as giving up a drug addiction. Fast-forward 10 or 15 years, all of those 14 year-olds are now trapped in luxury.

*All names have been changed.

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  • Hello, It would be helpful to refer to ketamine not as a tranquilliser (which is a term used to describe drugs like valium and temazepam) and more accurately as an anesthetic and analgesic (pain killer) which is it’s medical function.


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